High School Academic Pyramid Questions

Math Calculation Tossups

High School Academic Pyramid Questions does not provide math calculation tossups in its sets, and will not take custom orders for sets which require math calculation tossups. This article outlines the six reasons why HSAPQ feels that math calculation is not an appropriate topic for tossups in quizbowl.

1. It is not possible to write math calculation tossups in the pyramidal style

A pyramidal quizbowl tossup contains several clues in descending order, designed to reward students who know more about the topic before those who know less about it, while still containing a “giveaway clue” that is as easy as possible, so that players of all levels may get the question by the end. This is in contrast to the outdated “speed check” or “buzzer-beater” style of question, which contains one fact, which either players do or do not know, and discriminates among multiple players who know the answer not by rewarding the one who knows the most, but by rewarding the one who is quickest to press the buzzer. The fundamental mission of HSAPQ is to provide pyramidal tossups so that the game derives its excitement from competing to know more rather than to have faster reflexes.

Math calculation is identical to the suboptimal “buzzer-beater” question. It simply asks players to do one math problem. Either a player knows how to do it, or he does not. Those who know how to do it are rewarded not for knowing more about mathematics, but for being able to do the arithmetic more quickly. This does not reward conceptual knowledge about math; it rewards number-crunching ability.

2. Math calculation tossups are fundamentally unlike all other quizbowl

Quizbowl is about recall of factual and conceptual knowledge. It is not about applied skills. If it were, there would be no reason to privilege math calculation over other applied knowledge—one could be asked to analyze the meaning of a primary historical source, interpret the symbolism in a literary passage, perform a science experiment, etc. We do not and cannot ask about such things, nor is there any need to do so in the context of a quizbowl tournament. Changing the rules for math only is illogical.

3. Math calculation tossups do not educate

One of the most appealing features of good quizbowl is that players may immediately learn information about any question they miss. A tossup on a painting, a book, or a religious concept will be packed with vital information about the answer. Win or lose, all players come away from the game as more well-rounded, enlightened students. Math calculation tossups do not contain this advantage—they are mysterious and unedifying to anyone who does not already know how to do the problem. They contain the problem by itself, usually with no explanation, and at best with some “trick” way to do the problem that does not communicate anything about the underlying importance of mathematics.

4. Math is covered in other questions in the packet

We do ask math calculation bonuses in some of our sets, since they eliminate most of the problem by taking away the “bad tossup” factor. We also cover conceptual math questions that do not require calculation to answer—tossups on the fundamental theorem of algebra, on logarithms, etc. Mathematics in general is an important part of the HSAPQ distribution; it is only math calculation tossups that we exclude.

5. The canon of askable math calculation is too small

Given the constraints on quizbowl tossups (length limits, time limits to answer, the need to point unambiguously to one answer and not penalize players for buzzing in early by withholding information), there is a very small number of types of math problems that can actually be asked. In formats which use math calculation tossups, the top teams simply memorize the “tricks” for doing about thirty types of problems. The tossups become nothing more than a way to divide the “inside” teams from newer teams who may actually know more about mathematics. We prefer to ask questions that have a wide enough range of answers as to reward deeper and more significant knowledge about mathematics and all other topics, rather than encouraging the memorization of tricks or drilling of arithmetic speed.

6. Math is adequately covered in other competitions

Mathcounts, ARML, and dozens of other competitions focus largely or exclusively on applied mathematics. Quizbowl is unique in that it tests diverse factual knowledge in an in-depth, substantive way. We believe that good high school quizbowl is a worthy intellectual and competitive activity in and of itself, and does not need to be blended with other competitions in order to justify its existence.

HSAPQ hopes that its philosophical position on math calculation tossups is understood. Comments about our position statements on high school quizbowl may be directed to Carsten Gehring.